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Why aren't there more effective altruisms?
In my last post, I wrote that "effective altruism, despite its popularity, cannot singlehandedly meet the civil purpose of philanthropy.” I thought I was being coy, but a bunch of people have asked me what this meant, so I will be less coy and explain why I think effective altruism has limited impact.
The more interesting question, to me, however, is: “Why aren’t there more effective altruisms?” Why is effective altruism so strongly associated with philanthropy in tech, and what are other examples of initiatives that we perhaps don’t take seriously enough?
I’m not an EA, but I still think effective altruism helps us understand an increasing number of what I call “idea machines”: a decentralized network for turning ideas into outcomes (progress studies, It’s Time To Build, and crypto’s public goods funding are all examples of this). I just published a blog post that breaks down what idea machines are and how they work, using EA as a blueprint. Excerpt below.
(P.S. I have a new last name! Still transitioning everything over, but I’m now Nadia Asparouhova.)
Tech as a system of values, and not just an industry, is heavily driven by its subcultures and their ideologies. Where do these ideologies come from, and how do they influence what’s accomplished?
One of the most visible ideologies in tech is effective altruism (or EA), a philanthropic school of thought that advocates for “us[ing] high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible.”. If you don’t buy into its philosophy, it’s easy to write off effective altruism as yet another eccentric subculture. But effective altruism is both less and more interesting than it seems.
Although I’m not an EA, I think effective altruism is a useful blueprint for understanding a growing number of influential subcultures in tech right now, from progress studies to It’s Time to Build to crypto public goods funding. EA is the strongest example of what I think of as an Idea Machine: a network of operators, thinkers, and funders, centered around an ideology, that’s designed to turn ideas into outcomes.
Effective altruism’s strength lies in its infrastructure, and by understanding how it works, we can better understand how other idea machines will develop, what their impact will be, and what’s needed to make them more effective.
The limitations of effective altruism
Firstly, I want to address why effective altruism, as I’ve stated elsewhere, “cannot singlehandedly meet the civil purpose of philanthropy.” In other words, if effective altruism is so good already, why do we need other idea machines at all?
I think of philanthropy as a type of idea marketplace for public goods, funded by private capital. Like all idea marketplaces – startups, media, philosophy – it’s inherently pluralistic. We don’t have a single government-funded media channel, for example, but instead get our news, entertainment, and ideas from a multitude of sources.
There are certainly better and worse ways of executing a philanthropic initiative, just as there are better and worse ways of building a startup. But once we look beyond best practices, there’s way more variance in approaches than, say, effective altruism might advocate for.
We seem to understand that entrepreneurship operates in a free market of ideas, so I’m not sure where the idea comes from that there is, or could be, One True Approach to philanthropy. I’d guess it’s because there are so many egregious examples of mismanaged funds and middling outcomes, which have led people to feel understandably suspicious about its effectiveness. 
If we were to take EA literally, however, we’d be saying that there is an objectively best way to accomplish these outcomes, and that that way is discoverable: that complex social problems are a finite, solvable game.
If philanthropy is pluralistic – and, like any idea marketplace, that is one of its virtues – then there is no single school of thought that can “solve” complex social questions, because everyone has a different vision for the world. If you’re pro-pluralism in startups, you should also be pro-pluralism in philanthropy.
The scholar Peter Frumkin describes philanthropy as having both instrumental and expressive value. Effective altruism can be understood as a movement that heavily prioritizes instrumental value (which, ironically, is its own form of self-expression). As a private citizen, renouncing my right to expressive value, in favor of donating to wherever GiveWell tells me to, feels like I might as well just pay more taxes to the government. Why have a market of choice if we can’t exercise it?
I expect that effective altruism will always be an example of what I’ve called “club” communities elsewhere: high retention of existing members, but limited acquisition of new members, like a hobbyist club. EA will continue to grow, but it will never become the dominant narrative because it’s so morally opinionated. I don’t think that’s a problem, though, because ideally we want lots of people conducting lots of public experiments.
Why aren’t there more effective altruisms?
The more interesting question, then, is: why aren’t there more effective altruisms? It’d be like if there were just one startup, or one blogger, or one news channel. When it comes to deploying private capital towards public outcomes, the idea marketplace is woefully barren.
Although I don’t personally identify with the ethos of effective altruism, I also think they’ve done a lot of things well. EA has a remarkably good infrastructure for attracting and retaining members, identifying cause areas, and directing time and dollars towards those efforts. A common critique of EA is that it fails to attract operational talent, but despite its weaknesses, it’s still the best example of what I’ve been calling an “Idea Machine” in my head – maybe not the best term in the world, but let’s roll with it because I’m bad at naming.